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The Reeler Blog

Coney Island Comeback

Scott Baker, the man behind the title of Gary Beeber's CIFF doc Bally Master (Photo: Coney Island Film Festival)

By John Lichman

The infamous Natalie Portman Hotel Chevalier nude scene is now on iTunes, so there's really no reason to wait on line this weekend for Wes Anderson's latest. Especially when you could be rocking out at the seventh annual Coney Island Film Festival, which keeps the independent spirit alive through fire-breathers, freak shows and interesting features that threaten to shake up your film-going experience.

"We're always up against the New York Film Festival," said Rob Leddy, the festival's founder and chief programmer. "It's a different audience anyway. I think we attract more of an arts crowd than they ever will."

The fest opens with American Scary, an ode to the 1950s Creature Feature television hosts that dominated Saturday afternoons in your living room. Featuring hosts like Zacherley and A. Ghastlee Ghoul, Scary embodies the retro-cool that makes CIFF a creative beacon sharing the love for one of New York's last great cultural holdouts. "People love to shoot there; it's so visual," Leddy told The Reeler. "Also, there are the people who say, 'Hey, I want to get into the Coney Island Film Festival -- let's shoot there.'"

Of course, shooting your film near Astroland doesn't guarantee anything but fond memories. This year marked the festival's biggest year yet: 17 programs in total, including shorts starring Coney native Louis Gossett Jr. and James Gandolfini and Joe Mantegna in Club Soda. Andy Samberg stars in "a psychedelic noir" that ends on the beach. For true enthusiasts, there's the annual "audience participation" screening of the quintessential Coney Island classic The Warriors.

Also making his return to CIFF is Gary Beeber, who picked up the fest's Best Short Documentary prize in 2006 with Messenger. This time, Beeber arrives with Bally Master, a look at the life of sideshow performer/part-time Bloomingdale's Santa Claus Scott Baker.

"I thought he was so versatile and such an amazing trip," said Beeber, whose film features a behind-the-stage look at how a performer gets the crowd off -- not to mention Baker taking a spike up the nose. "I think the most interesting thing about Scott is I had to figure out not how he does a trick, but how to shoot the tricks." In the end Beeber required 10 different takes for the same shot; each time it looked as Baker was hiding the spike with his hand. (Let it suffice to say the tricks are real, kids, so don't try them at home.)

Another interesting selection is the Canadian film King of Sorrow, which Leddy found while consulting for the Staten Island Film Festival last year. Calling it a cross between Bad Lieutenant and "Taxi Driver for a scene," the first 10 minutes remind viewers that dark and edgy films have not been completely replaced by feel-good cinema or carrot-wielding gunmen.

"To me, it's right up my alley for the stuff I like to see in a movie," actress Lara Daans told The Reeler a few weeks back from the Toronto Film Festival. She plays the psychiatrist/love interest to Kim Coates' drug-addicted and suicidal detective on a very disturbing trip. "Even here in Toronto it's disheartening to see films that end up in the festival, because it's become very commercial," she continued. "They're appealing to what stars can come into town as opposed to what gems you can find in filmmaking -- a lot of the Hollywood blockbusters that open up in two weeks at these festivals? They're not that. They can't be."

The Coney Island Film Festival kicks off Sept. 28 at Sideshows by the Seashore, followed by an opening-night party at the Coney Island Museum at 9:30 pm. Visit the festival's Web site for full schedule.

Posted at September 27, 2007 9:22 AM

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